The first article on the making of On The Rocks featured the creation of the show and how the staff came together. For this article, the focus is writing the first episode, or as it’s known in the industry, the pilot.
With the staff in place and the basic premise of the show agreed upon, executive producers Sam Miller and Chris Wu began work on the pilot.
Unlike most of the Grinders, who had never worked together before, Miller and Wu knew each other through a pilot writing course they both took at iO West in 2009. At the time, Miller worked in comedy development at ABC Studios and Wu in TV Lit at William Morris. Since then, both started working in television writers’ offices for shows such as Malibu Country and The Killing.
“When I sent out the original email, I was surprised when Chris wrote back. I knew the Yahoo TV writing group was large, but I didn’t realize how large it was,” said Miller. Both had written comedy pilots and even exchanged notes on pilot scripts, but they had never worked with each other before. The pilot for On The Rocks would be their first time writing together as well as proof of concept that The Grinders could write a series for the web using processes taken from television.
Web TV vs. Regular TV
One of the first considerations in writing a television comedy pilot is the format – whether the show will be a single camera or a multicamera show. (See the first article). “We were very conscious of limiting the size of the cast and the number of locations to suit a traditional multicam. It’s a bit like writing a play. You have to keep the action to three or four sets in one location, and feature only a handful of characters. Those are the tools you can tell that story with,” said Miller. “Constraints like this can improve creativity; they force you to stick with your main characters and get to know them a lot more.”
Next came figuring out the structure. While TV and Internet content are starting to cross over, one of the biggest differences between the two is episode length.
“We knew that a twenty-two minute episode would be too long to post as one piece so we had to break it up,” said Wu. “Sam and I always looked at it as four miniature episodes that made a larger episode. That really did shape how we structured each act so that it could work as both an act and as a standalone episode.”
On The Rocks, Not Just a Way to Drink Scotch or the Sequel to Arthur
For Miller and Wu, the most important step in writing the pilot was fleshing out the characters. “There was a lot of talk about the characters and the kind of character mix we really wanted for this series,” said Wu.
Miller wanted to explore the professional aspirations of a recent college grad so he created Sally (Sarah Stoecker), an enthusiastic young woman whose biggest flaw is that she has no idea how offices work in “the real world” and yet is plucky enough to land a junior associate position at Pacific Spirits, a liquor distributor in an unnamed West coast city.
Sally’s romantic foil is corporate middle manager David (Sam Daly), a guy who’s already feeling burned out a few years in to his career. Miller took a little bit from his own life in creating David. “I felt that kind of burn out when I was working at a studio. The corporate of it all was a little overwhelming. I think everyone questions their career path at some point,” said Miller. “So that’s where David came from.”
As expected from a multicam series involving liquor, Cheers was a big influence. The classic Sam and Diane, will-they-or-won’t-they model became a key inspiration, more recently incarnated in the Jim/Pam dynamic from The Office.
To heighten the conflict, David was given an on again/off again girlfriend, Andrea (Alicia Ying). For the writers, writing Andrea presented some challenges. “In my mind, I wanted Andrea to be brutally honest and quick with zingers, but she was coming across as way too snarky to be relatable. We added a spoiled, fashion-savvy aspect which gave her a point of view and kept some of her attitude,” said Wu. “We balanced her out by making her competent and ambitious in both her professional and personal life. She’s a snobby perfectionist.”
No office is complete without a boss. For On The Rocks, the boss is affable, sober, family man Patrick (Kevin High). Wu said Patrick was a combination of several bosses he and Miller had.
Rounding out the cast are office manager Michelle (Arianna Ortiz) and biochemist turned mixologist, Ryan (James Lontayao). Michelle and Ryan are two mismatched co-conspirators and unexpected friends. They were named after some of Miller’s co-workers and their real life counterparts inspired their characters and friendship.
Many of the final decisions about these characters were made during casting. “Originally we wanted an older actress for the role of Michelle, a veteran actress, someone in her golden years,” said Wu.
“We found a great actress in Arianna. Not only was she really talented, but she had a different take on the character that really impressed us. We adjusted the character to fit her performance,” said Miller. “That happened to an extent with every character – each cast member brought something unique that really helped us visualize this world and make it more interesting.”
Giving, Taking and Letting Go
With the characters in place, Miller and Wu hammered out the plot. Full-time jobs kept them from working in the same room so they traded outlines and early drafts via email. They went back-and-forth three times before they felt confident enough to share the pilot with the rest of the staff. “I’d written pilots with people before and sometimes you’re not on the same page with what needs to go on or they’re not at the same level as you,” said Miller. “It was nice that Chris and I were on the same page from day one. I couldn’t have found a better collaborator for this effort.”
Miller and Wu sought input on the draft from the other Grinders, including writers Ali Chen, Aurora Clark, Violet Ket, Johnny Kleinman, Jessica Kivnik, Greg Machlin, Nora Winslow and myself. Through weekly meetings, the group disassembled and reassembled the pilot. “The rules of the room are to listen, and to ‘yes, and’ other ideas,” said Miller. “There’s a lot of laughing. That’s how you know a joke is on the right track – someone pitches it and everyone laughs!”
Months of meetings culminated in punch-up sessions, a process that is very common in professional sitcom writers’ rooms. “We ran the room like a sitcom – we put the script up on Violet’s TV monitor and we went through page by page with everyone pitching jokes or alternates,” said Miller. “It was really cool to see that just by creating a similar environment the room worked almost identically to how the television shows we’ve worked on are written.”
With everyone’s input and a few cases of beer, the first episode and the series took shape. But sometimes not even a full writer’s room can iron out all of the problems with a script.
“Because we wanted to run our web series production just like a sitcom’s, we scheduled a table read,” said Miller. “And that’s when I finally had to face a big problem.”
The plot originally hinged on a phone call in which the new hire, Sally, blurted out her suggestions and got in trouble. After the table read, it became clear that simply wasn’t working.
“I was drawing from some personal life experience so I assumed it would play as authentic, but it didn’t work so we had to throw it out,” said Miller. “But that’s the nice thing about having a cast and having a table read which is a part of the production process that you don’t normally get to go through when you’re just writing by yourself.”
Wu agreed that letting go of stuff you like is a big and sometime difficult part of the revision process.
“The hardest and most challenging thing you have to learn to do is to make big story changes in later drafts where you actually have to give up scenes you spent hours and days on just because it doesn’t work anymore,” said Wu. “But, it’s something you have to learn how to do.”
In all, it took about four months for the pilot to go from pitch to production with input from nearly a dozen writers, a half-dozen actors and a handful of industry contacts.
Next week, I’ll talk with the writing staff about how we work together and contribute to the show.